A little over a week ago at the Muslim Congress conference in Atlanta, I helped facilitate an impromptu discussion that primarily focused on race relations in the American Muslim community. The conversation came about due to a group of concerned sisters who wanted “real talk” with shuyookh about the epidemic of racism in the community and how it expresses itself subtly and overtly. I was then appointed to lead the conversation by a leader within Muslim Congress, Mawlana Baig.
Before going into detail about what was discussed, knowing the demographics of Muslim Congress conference participants is important. The leadership and conference participants were majority South Asian. Conference participants also included Iranian Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans and White Americans. Though there were a few speakers such as myself who do not follow madhhab Ja’fari, the leadership and the overwhelmingly majority of conference participants follow the Ja’fari school of thought.
Going backto the actual discussion which was not on the official program and took place from midnight to 2 a.m. with my facilitation and in the presence of Shaykh Usama Abdul Ghani and Shaykh Hamza Sodagar, the following issues related to implicit and explicit ethnocentricity and racism were discussed:
- Most masajid feel more like cultural centers than Islamic centers. The dominant cultural groups of boards and congregants superimpose their cultural standards and traditions in the centers, which makes those who are not from those groups feel alienated. An example given was of an Islamic center that started off with a diverse group of people when it was small. As it expanded and the majority of the congregation became Iranian American, speeches transitioned into majority Farsi. A South Asian brother who brought up this specific issue says that he no longer feels welcome there. Similar sentiments were expressed by other people that experienced the same at other locations.
- Programsand speeches which are focused on overseas matters without balancing domestic concerns. An example of this is that a South Asian sister brought up how shuyookh are quick to talk about “Takfiris” and “Wahhabis” abroad yet don’t allow platforms to discuss oppression that takes place in America such as police brutality and systemic racism.
- Sisters moving in the prayer lines away from other sisters to pray next to someone from their own ethnic group.
- Issues relating to marriage were the most discussed.
- A Pakistani American sister spoke about how she was harassed by family members here and abroad for two years for introducing her Pakistani American friend to a Black American Muslim brother. The sister herself was engaged to a Pakistani American man. She was accused of violating the hadeeth of loving for your sister what you love for yourself because she was engaged to a Pakistani man yet introduced her friend to a black man who was beneath the standards that she chose for herself.
- A sister who is an immigrant from India married a brother who is originally from the Caribbean. She continues to be harassed by her family. After having children, family members had the audacity to ask her if her children were scared of their own father because “he’s so black.” Even statements about lack of pure blood have been made.
- A Southeast Asian sister’s marriage was broken up by in-laws because she was a different culture; their comments about her not being from them were repetitive and very specific. Comments were made about her skin color not being light enough in conjunction.
- Stories were also shared of Black Muslim children being harassed at schools because of their blackness and not being seen as Muslim enough.
- An Indian American brother spoke about how he was on the executive board of a masjid, and when he suggested to add an African American brother who was a “professional” to the board, he was rebuked. He was later forced off of the board for not understanding that the center was for Desis.
These issues that were discussed continue to be experienced by Muslims across America irrespective of schools of thought. The specific examples in cases 1b and 3 are incredibly gross, and I’ve heard and even experienced my share of overt racism in the American Muslim community.
The bottom line is that racism among Muslims must be discussed openly, and leadership of masajid and Islamic organizations have to be challenged to systematically address these issues. Since many of the leaders themselves are ill equipped or undereducated on addressing the complexity of race in America in general, which is informed by white supremacy, as well as the specific issue of implicit bias that exists everywhere in the American Muslim community, the challenge becomes getting leaders not only to acknowledge the broader issues but for them to be humble to be trained in this discourse and to allow persons who are not wearing turbans and thawbs to have trained facilitators lead these discussions. To be more specific, Muslim women who are trained in this subject should be used as well; sexism was also a topic that was touched on in our discussion related to racism.
Just for the sake of clarity, I recently finished a 9 month fellowship through Wayne State University’s Law School on racial equity in which I was trained on how to facilitate such conversations besides my Islamic studies that relate to this issue.
Leadership has to acknowledge and be willing to change, starting with themselves on this issue. Trainings and discussions need to take place. Deep relationships and socialization has to take place as well outside of superficial contact on Jumu’ah Day and/or at Islamic conferences.
The struggle continues.